Jill Khoury is the author of Suites for the Modern Dancer, which was released this month from Sundress Publications.
Sundress: What is it about the body and disability that inspires your poetry?
Jill Khoury: From a young age my body was an object of the normalization efforts of others. At the same time, it was made clear that the body was a private thing. So I was told to be like the other kids, and be quiet while I was at it, and I internalized that message for a long time. So I do it because I was told not to. Nor are notions of normalization and privacy something that our society has moved beyond, so I guess I also write about these things because I want other people to tell their stories of difference and tell it loud.
Sundress: Did you ever read a work about either that really spoke to you? Anything you recommend?
Jill Khoury: So many! Here’s a brief list of books of poetry and memoir that have inspired me to think/re-think how I write about the body, in chronological order of when I discovered them:
- Anne Sexton- Collected Works
- Sharon Olds- Satan Says
- Toi Derricotte- Captivity, also Tender
- Stephen Kuusisto- Planet of the Blind, also Only Bread, Only Light
- Georgina Kleege- Sight Unseen
- Paul Guest- The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World
- Tom Andrews- The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle
- Jim Ferris- The Hospital Poems
- Ed. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, Michael Northen, – Beauty Is A Verb: The New Poetics of Disability
- Danielle Pafunda- The Dead Girls Speak in Unison
Sundress: Your description of blindness throughout is very real. What’s your secret? How were you able to convey the experience of being blind in so few words?
Jill Khoury: My secret would be that I’m blind! Actually I’ve been trying to write elegantly about blindness for a long time, since college really, and I failed at it for many years. The (blind) memoirist and poet Stephen Kuusisto shaped a lot of my ability to write successfully about my own personal version of blindness. He taught creative nonfiction at Ohio State when I was pursuing my MFA there, and took several classes with him.
It turned out that I had to write about blindness in essay form first, before the poetry would come anywhere near to being how I wanted it. Although I don’t care for writing in prose too much, I needed a boundless space (which is usually what I don’t like about writing in prose) to give me enough room to explore the relationship with my blindness without the pressure to distill it into a poem. I really like the lyric essay. Steve introduced me to that form. It was just what I needed.
Sundress: In this book you write several poems about characters who are children or young adults. Do you think children have a special awareness of the body and the stigmas attached that older adults may miss?
Jill Khoury: Like I mentioned, I was taught in early childhood to not like my body and its differences. I spent most of my time after age 18 unlearning those things. I do think children are aware of their bodies with an innocence and a freedom that is so easily quashed by adults. The stigmas are learned very early, and internalized by all bodies. To say that I found the received stigmas about my body inhibiting would be an understatement.
Sundress: Have you ever written a poem that you felt you just couldn’t get right? What’s your revision process like?
Jill Khoury: The title poem of the book, “Suites for the Modern Dancer,” was started in, I think, 2004. I wrote the final draft of it about two months before Suites-the-book was published. An earlier version of the poem appeared my 2009 chapbook, Borrowed Bodies, but it still was not complete, not nuanced enough to accurately convey the complex fluidity between blindness and seeing, and the consequences of, as mentioned in the previous question, received stigmas about the body.
My revision process is different depending on the poem. “Suites” was sparked by reading A. R. Ammons’ essay “A Poem Is A Walk,” in which he said:
“The motion may be lumbering, clipped, wavering, tripping, mechanical, dance-like, awkward, staggering, slow, etc. But the motion occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. . . . It can’t be translated into another body. There is only one way to know it and that is to enter into it.”
All my life I had struggled with walking. I went to a school for kids with cerebral palsy when I was very young to improve on some coordination issues that I was born with. As far as I know, I don’t have CP, but I do have issues with balance and motor control that seem similar to people with mild versions of CP.
I lived in one of those small towns where you go to elementary and middle school with the same kids that you graduate high school with. I would say I did not have a “normal” looking gait until I was somewhere in the elementary school years. That, along with my low vision, was grand fodder for childhood cruelty, and somewhat, for cruelty from teachers who really wanted to normalize me. Again, received stigmas.
It may have been the case that the professor who assigned the Ammons essay, also gave us an assignment to think or write about poetry and walking—I can’t remember now. But I thought a lot about the history of my walking and of my newly acquired walk, the one with the white cane I had recently learned how to use in order to forge across the wide midwestern streets of Columbus, Ohio. The cane gave me much better balance and bodily confidence, but I also felt like that girl who was learning how to walk being pointed at by all the mean kids, only everyone was grown.
Sundress: What’s interesting about these poems is that some have a more traditional format and structure while others don’t. Do you ever find yourself leaning toward one or the other or does it always depend on the poem?
Jill Khoury: The poem determines itself. They each emerge organically. I wish I had a more adroit answer for this question, but it really is based on an intuitive feeling of sound and breath and the emotional timbre of the subject matter.
Sundress: What progress do you think still needs to be made for disability representation in poetry and literature?
Jill Khoury: A lot of progress still needs to be made. Last year I heard an editor of a young, vibrant press that publishes “edgy” work and has been inclusive of other work based in identity, a place that I might submit my work to otherwise, say “I hate hospital poems [or poems that dwell on the body and its illness] because they are such a downer.” I was stunned. It was a comment you might expect to hear from a traditional “old guard” sort of press that had very particular ideas about what poems should and shouldn’t be about, but that wasn’t this.
With that in mind:
- More journals and presses should be open to examinations of disability and the body as another facet of identity, much like has (recently) been given to examinations of the complexities of gender and race, for example.
- Space should be given to works that focus on intersections between facets of identity, such as race, sexuality, and disability.
- The personal narrative should be emphasized–meaning: more space for disabled voices writing about disability and much less space being granted to disability used as a prop, trope, or conflict to give more “depth” to a nondisabled person’s narrative fiction.
Jill Khoury is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and has taught writing and literature in high school, university, and enrichment environments. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Arsenic Lobster, Copper Nickel, Inter|rupture, and Portland Review. She has also been anthologized in Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Pudding House Press released her chapbook, Borrowed Bodies, in 2009. Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer was released by Sundress Publications this month.